This is probably about the 35th time I’ve seen Blue Velvet, but only the second on the big screen. In celebration of the 25th anniversary of the film it is currently making the rounds via arthouse theaters.
Lynch’s small-town, pastel-colored nightmare shows that it has true staying power. Incredible turns from the likes of Dennis Hopper, Dean Stockwell and Isabella Rossellini make the film tick, and Kyle McLachlan and Laura Dern are appropriately campy and naive as the teenage investigator-team.
Because I’ve seen this film so many times I want to talk about a few things that struck me differently upon this viewing, but before that a side note: I really really hate it when people comment on the action and/or ask ridiculous questions out loud, during the movie. Here’s a sample of comments from possibly the two most annoying audience-members I have ever sat near. These are going to make me sound either pretentious or overly sensitive, but to hell with it:
-When Rossellini’s Dorothy Valens is approaching the closet holding a knife where MacLachlan’s Jeffrey Beaumont is hiding – “What’s going to happen?” Really? Can’t you wait the additional 22 seconds and find out for yourself? Isn’t that the purpose of suspense? Why don’t you leave the theater, give me your number, and I’ll call you after and tell you what happened.
-When a significant character is shot and killed – “[Loud laughter]. Nice shot.” Again, really? It was pretty clearly a nice shot to the rest of us as well, otherwise they would have missed.
-Right before Jeffrey’s flushing of a toilet forces him to miss a critical sound – “He’s going to flush the toilet and not hear it.” My biggest pet peeve. Predicting the action before it happens. You’re really smart. We all get it. Shut up.
Now…on to other sections of Blue Velvet. There’s a shot during Dean Stockwell’s Ben’s interpretation of Roy Orbison’s In Dreams that actually gave me the chills. Lynch cuts between closeups of Frank (Hopper) and Ben, a 2-shot of both of them, and then the reverse wide shot showing the entire room watching the performance. Midway through the song, in the reverse wide, the door in the background opens and Dorothy walks out. No one looks at her. She’s framed slightly off-center. Her clothes contrast sharply with the candy-colored walls. Her body language is tired. She has just come from speaking with her kidnapped son and husband. She is the focus of the viewer’s attention, but within the world of the film she’s an afterthought. It’s such a strong moment and a good summary of the action so far – certain important events take a backseat to performance (think of MacLachlan’s detoured investigation post-Slow Club).
Lynch uses a technique in BV that he started in Eraserhead and really perfected in Lost Highway. He uses it to great effect twice in this one. It’s the idea of a completely black frame from which a character seemingly magically appears. This is how Laura Dern’s Sandy enters the film. Jeffrey leaves her parents house and he hears her voice on the sidewalk. He (and we) look in its direction, seeing only black with the vague outline of a tree. Suddenly, just as she’s upon us – and this is the key to the shot: not seeing the character in depth at all – Sandy materializes and is bathed in an ethereal light. It’s a laughable moment in its mimicry of the softly-lit, worshipful female lead, but also another contrast between the dream and nightmare worlds of BV.
Lynch continues to play with these dream-like elements in visual ways. One of my favorite cuts in the film, made all the more apparent seeing it enlarged, occurs when Frank and company leave Ben’s place. The camera dollies into Frank who screams out at no one and the audience. A jump cut and a frame later and Frank and his cronies are gone. We never see them leave the room. There’s no fade or dissolve to ease the transition. They just…disappear. Lynch isn’t endowing his characters with superpowers. He’s hinting further at the absurdity and the improbability of such a place as Ben’s existing in the first place.
Last but not least: I used to play a drinking game with a good friend of mine to BV. Some of the rules included drinking every time Frank Booth said “fuck,” whenever Jeffrey or Sandy said something naive, whenever something happened that was simultaneously beautiful and scary and whenever Roy Orbison plays. Needless to say, that’s a decent amount of drinking. Something about Hopper’s performance this time through rang more of improvisation than other times I’ve watched it. I think in part it’s that his wording of things is such a departure from any other Lynch character in any of his films (Lynch’s characters do swear – Mr. Eddy in Lost Highway, for example), but it’s also the cadence of a Lynch-line. I’ve never done any real reading up on the happenings on the set of BV, but I’d be very curious to know how the character of Frank Booth was fully formed.